Wealhtheow, Grendel’s mother, and Hygd: The women in Beowulf

Introduction
Synopsis
The Original Old English
My Translation
A Quick Interpretation
Closing

Aethelflaed, the anglo-saxon woman who wasn't queen but fought off vikings.

An image of Aethelflaed, fighter of vikings and the daughter of King Alfred the Great and Queen Ealhswith. Image from https://younghistorian7.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/a-look-at-some-anglo-saxon-queens/


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Synopsis

The poet takes a break from Beowulf here to share a few details of Hygelac’s kingdom with us.


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The Original Old English

“Het þa up beran æþelinga gestreon,
frætwe ond fætgold; næs him feor þanon
to gesecanne sinces bryttan,
Higelac Hreþling, þær æt ham wunað
selfa mid gesiðum sæwealle neah.
Bold wæs betlic, bregorof cyning,
heah in healle, Hygd swiðe geong,
wis, welþungen, þeah ðe wintra lyt
under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe,
Hæreþes dohtor; næs hio hnah swa þeah,
ne to gneað gifa Geata leodum,
maþmgestreona.”
(Beowulf ll.1920-1931a)


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My Translation

“Then it was commanded that the prince’s treasure be carried up,
ornaments and plated gold. It was not far from there
for him to go to the treasure bestower,
Hygelac, son of Hrethel, he who dwelled within
his own home, living near the sea-cliff with his companions.
The building there was magnificent, the king was of princely fame,
one exalted in the hall, along with Hygd, his young queen,
a woman wisely accomplished, though she had lived
within the enclosed stronghold for but a few winters,
daughter of Haereth. Yet she was not bent down by vanity,
she was not sparing in gifts to the Geatish people,
she gave a great many treasures.”
(Beowulf ll.1920-1931a)


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A Quick Interpretation

So far there have been two major women in this poem. And they are definitely at opposite ends of the spectrum of good/bad.

First, we met Wealtheow, the queen of the Danes. She was a woman who came from a group that Hrothgar or his family must have enslaved, based on her name. Despite these origins, the poet suggests that she’s a good queen who embodies all the best qualities of courtly women: quietly powerful, dominant in the hall, and a master of social niceties.

Next, we met Grendel’s mother. She is pretty much the opposite of Wealhtheow. After all, she’s supposed to be a monster. So instead of Wealhtheow’s happily fitting into a courtly setting and really shining, Grendel’s mother runs her own hall, answering to no one, and brutally striking out at those who attack her and her kin.

Now the poet introduces us to Hygd, the wife of Hygelac. The first thing we learn about her is that, much like Wealhtheow, she’s likely from a foreign people. After all, the poet notes that Hygd fits right in with the Geats, “though she had lived/within the enclosed stronghold for but a few winters” (“þeah ðe wintra lyt/under burhlocan gebiden hæbbe” (ll.1927-1928)). So Hygd is certainly a woman who wields her courtly power well and justly. Though there is a bit of a creepy note in mentioning how young she is.

Marrying women off when they would still be considered “girls” today was common practice in earlier societies, but that fed into the very purpose of marriage back then: cementing business and political deals. Love could be a factor, but more often than not I think it was hoped that it would come about after the vows were exchanged. Hence the steady popularity of love stories like those of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Iseult, or Lancelot and Guinevere. People were hungry for the idea of relationships built on love, even if they ran against whatever political or mercantile interests were at stake.

There’s also the issue of how Hygd fits into Hygelac’s court. She’s introduced along with the building and the talk of treasures. She’s introduced as Hygelac’s wife, sure, but there does seem to be a note of her being something Hygelac owns. Though in both Wealhtheow and Hygd’s cases there’s a sense that these women are able to create a great deal of power. And yet, there’s a hint of danger that lingers around women. In fact, the poet seems to be trying to strike a balance between good women and evil women, since the following passage describes the vanity and vice of Modthryth.

But, what do you think of the women in Beowulf? Is the poet trying to balance them out (and definitely not doing so with the men)? How does Hildeburh from the Finnsburgh section of the poem (ll.1068-1158) figure into this balance? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Closing

Next week, the poet tells us the story of the wicked queen Modthryth.

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Beowulf: Musical theatre as character exploration

Currently out from writer/director Aaron Sawyer at the Red Theatre is a musical simply (and a little confusingly) called Beowulf. The trailer on the show’s website grabbed my attention as tightly as a man with the strength of 30 could. But, not being able to jet down to Chicago and watch it myself, I’m only able to write about it based on reviews from Third Coast Reviews and The Chicago Reader.

Sawyer’s adaptation of Beowulf is quite an original take, though its focus isn’t anything too new. The basic premise is that Beowulf and Grendel’s mother have been trapped together for all time by Odin. Simple enough. But their past together has not been erased. Grendel’s mother grieves for the loss of her son, and Beowulf questions his heroism as the two become romantically entangled.

These details make this show sound like quite a romp indeed, but it’s definitely playing off of themes that exist in the original poem.

Grendel’s mother is definitely charged with sexual energy in the poem itself. After all, she is the controller of dangerous femininity (giving birth to monsters, wielding a concealed dagger, overpowering Beowulf and landing on top of him (almost fatally)). And she’s certainly contrasted with the much more socially constrained queen Wealhtheow. Wealhtheow is portrayed as nothing but demure, though there are hints of her own desires for Beowulf but she never acts on them.

Grendel’s mother on the other hand acts on her desires for Beowulf so vehemently that she comes very close to killing him. I mean, she pounces on him and then tries to stab him with a dagger. An act of fury, to be sure, but it’s hard for me to not see the symbolism in what she does while on top of him. The dagger she pulls out is pretty phallic as a symbol. Stabbing is a form of penetration. And a female stabbing a male while on top of him seems (at least to me) like a pretty clear metaphor for male rape; a thing no doubt circled by shame and sorrow in the Anglo-Saxon society from whence Beowulf came.

But, interestingly enough, (and maybe this is where Sawyer got the idea for making Grendel’s mother the focus of his play and Tolkien got the idea for having fewer women in the Lord of the Rings trilogy than you could count on both hands), Beowulf never shows much interest in Grendel’s mother.

In fact, he never really shows much interest in any woman. He’s just concerned with glory and heroism (as he is in that trailer).

But maybe Beowulf’s apparent asexuality is part of the bigger picture of the poem. In keeping with medieval ideas of males somehow being closer to god than females, perhaps part of Beowulf’s manly virtue is that he’s beyond all that icky sex stuff. Even when we see him rule his own people there’s no real indication that he’s ever been married or had children. There’s not even any explicit mention or clear implication that he had some kind of mistress.

Ultimately, it sounds like Sawyer’s Beowulf is one that, though it strays pretty far from the source material in terms of story, keeps very close to its characterization of Beowulf and of Grendel’s mother. As goofy and incoherent as Jack Helbig of the Chicago Reader says it is, I think those elements are built into Sawyer’s premise. How else but farce could locking Grendel’s mother and Beowulf in a room turn out? As such, I think this take on Beowulf would be worth seeing just to get a glimpse of two of Beowulf‘s most interesting characters.

Is Beowulf an introvert?

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf’s Struggle with Story
It’s Just a Simple Ancient Sword
Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: http://bit.ly/2frmbiU


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Synopsis

Beowulf tells the story of his fight against Grendel’s mother. This is his rough draft performance.


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Translation

“Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow:
‘Harken unto me, son of Halfdane,
lord of the Scyldings, we who have been to the sea-lake
have brought back booty, a mark of fame, for all here to look upon.
I escaped that choppy conflict,
the war beneath the waters, ventured through
the risky deed; the fight was nearly taken from me,
but God shielded me.
In that struggle I could not bring Hrunting
to bear, though it is a noble weapon;
but the lord of men allowed
that I might see hanging on the cave wall
a shining magnificent sword of elder-craft — often
will the wise aid the friendless — that I seized and brandished as my own.'”
(Beowulf ll.1651-1664)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Beowulf’s Struggle with Story

Beowulf has told many stories before. And he’s been called a boaster. That’s a label that fits quite well since his stories of fighting off sea monsters to protect Breca, or of taking out groups of monsters definitely seem embellished. But now he’s telling a story about an event that we witnessed. Well, witnessed the original telling of, anyway.

So what?

Well, one of the things that I’ve noticed on rereading this passage is that Beowulf’s telling of the fight with Grendel’s mother is that it’s very straightforward. It’s almost as if he’s shrinking away from the center of attention, as an introvert might.

Beowulf says that it was a close fight, that Hrunting wasn’t living up to its quality, and that he found a giant’s weapon to finish the job. All of that checks out, since that’s a pretty accurate summary of the fight with Grendel’s mother. Though it’s interesting to note that Beowulf doesn’t go into any details. He doesn’t admit that Grendel’s mother pinned him to the ground, or stabbed at him with a knife. If “specificity is the soul of narrative,” as John Hodgman is so fond of saying on his internet court show, Judge John Hodgman, then it seems like Beowulf is mangling the soul of his story.

Why?

Maybe because it’s so fresh in Beowulf’s mind. Coming so close to death, facing such terrifying enemies and circumstances, it’s fair to say that it’ll take more than a few hours to fully process what he’s been through. If that’s the case, then perhaps Beowulf is scanty on the details in this retelling because so little time has past and he’s still reeling.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with processing the events.

Instead, maybe Beowulf just needs more time to come up with embellishments that will hang together and keep the story coherent while elevating it to the tale of a grand heroic deed. Beowulf is a warrior and not a poet after all.

Thus, it might take some time for him to come up with the best way to phrase things like “she mounted me” or “I was almost stabbed to death but my mail saved my life.” Both details are important for the story’s full impact, but could come off as a little less than all-conquering. And, if you think about it, any story about a close call needs to maintain a sense that the hero isn’t really doomed, despite the circumstances. But being pinned by a woman and nearly stabbed to death are a little too dire to be brushed off as events on the way to a heroic close.

In other words, without embellishing those parts of the fight, Beowulf’s victory could be seen as less a victory from skill and more one from luck.

Why do you think Beowulf’s retelling of his fight is so general when it comes to the actual events of the fight? Why doesn’t he just give the play-by-play?


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It’s Just a Simple Ancient Sword

Normally, descriptions of battles and speeches are full of compound words. This is something I noted back in October 2015, while working through lines 1043 to 1049. Beowulf’s speech in this week’s passage is both, but there is only one compound word: “eald-sweord”1.

This lack of compound words is strange, but I think it links back to the events being so fresh in Beowulf’s mind. His use of simpler language reflects either his raw impressions of events or his need for more time to really embellish things as much as he might like to.

But what I wonder is why “eald-sweord”1 is the compound in this passage.

It stumped Clark Hall and Meritt since it doesn’t even appear in the edition of their dictionary that I’m using. Even C.L. Wrenn glosses the word simply as “ancient sword,” though there’s a dagger beside it, indicating that such interpretation is uncertain.

Wrenn’s definition is intuitive, since that’s exactly what the two words mean when combined, but “eald-sweord”1 doesn’t seem to be attested to anywhere other than this instance in Beowulf. So, it must have been a word that was made up especially for the occasion.

Which makes it all the more interesting to me since it’s such an intuitive combination of words for “ancient sword”. There are no strange, culture-specific senses of the words combining together, it’s just “old” and “sword” smashed together. The spontaneity of which, leaves me even more convinced that Beowulf, as much of a storyteller as he is, is struggling to improvise one about his fight with Grendel’s mother.


1eald-sweord: ancient sword (?). eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + sweord (sword)

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Closing

Next week, Beowulf assures Hrothgar that he’s finally taken care of his monster problem.

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Beowulf’s mental power and the warrior’s way to riches (ll.1632-1643)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Beowulf Purges his Inner Demons, but isn’t Indestructible
The Warrior’s Path to Riches
Closing

Beowulf and his band of Geats carrying Grendel's head.

J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack.
Image found at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg#/media/File:Stories_of_beowulf_head_of_grendel.jpg


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Synopsis

Beowulf and the Geats lug Grendel’s head back to Heorot.


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Translation

“They then went forth on the footpath,
rejoicing in the wooded countryside, passing along the trail,
down familiar ways; those royally brave men
carried the head from the cliffs around the lake,
struggling with it all together,
the very bold. Four of them
balanced the beast’s head on their spearpoints
as they carried Grendel’s remains to the gold-hall.
Finally they could see the hall from the hill’s cusp,
the war-like fourteen turned from the road
and the Geats passed into the valley. The lord of battle
was at their heart as they strode through the meadhall’s yard.”
(Beowulf ll.1632-1643)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Beowulf Purges his Inner Demons, but isn’t Indestructible

As someone reading this poem centuries after it was first performed and then later written out I can’t say for sure, but I think that the monks who were familiar with the story and wrote it out probably had Christ’s harrowing of hell and resurrection in mind when they penned Beowulf’s return. Hell has indeed been harrowed and the prize — in this case, and in the Biblical case, really — is a symbol of everlasting peace. Or, at least, peace from external forces. For there will always be things outside of our control that come in and stir things up.

Looked at in the context of the poem, though, I think that there’s a case to be made that Beowulf’s experience in the Grendels’ hall isn’t about Heorot at all. Instead it’s more about Beowulf himself.

In the comments on this entry, fellow writer about ancient things, Megas Begadonos mentions that the feminine has long been associated with the realm of the subconscious. Thus, Beowulf’s fighting and overcoming Grendel’s mother symbolizes his gaining control over his subconscious mind. Such a feat is indeed the mark of strength.

Of course, when he defeated Grendel, there’s no question that Beowulf showed an incredible strength. But when he defeats Grendel’s mother, I don’t think it’s just a matter of strength, or even of God or fate’s favour. I think the victory over Grendel’s mother is due to Beowulf’s adaptability and his mental resilience. Both qualities that could be useful in ferreting out subconscious impulses that might derail a warrior on the way to kingship.

After all, when Hrunting fails him, he’s quick enough to find another weapon to use against this foe who, in a straight grappling match seems to be his equal if not his superior. And since the sword that he grabs is an ancient weapon made by giants, it could be interpreted as wisdom or ancient knowledge, the kinds of things that could help someone in their struggles to not just subdue the demons that torment them and those around them, as Grendel did, but to take off their heads and rob them of all power.

Thus, unlike the Beowulf in Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 animated feature, in the poem Beowulf does not give in to the wiles of Grendel’s mother. Instead he is able to overcome a desire for the power that he could easily seize (a theme that also comes up in Beowulf: A Musical Epic, though not from Beowulf’s interaction with Grendel’s mother, but rather from Wealhtheow’s lusting for him).

Because of all of this symbolic growth, Beowulf eventually goes on to be a judicious king, only to lose his power and his life when a stranger rouses not just a humanoid monster but a flying, fire-breathing dragon. A beast all together alien from him and his experience, suggesting that as powerful as a person can become physically, mentally, or spiritually, there are still variables they can’t control for and obstacles they can’t top.

What do you think the symbolic significance is of the fight with Grendel’s mother? Is it any different from the significance of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel?


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The Warrior’s Path to Riches

As long as it was followed for the right reasons (according to the ring giver, of course), the “fold-weg”1 of the “fyrd-hwate”2 could be quite rewarding. Indeed, if you shook your “wæl-steng”3 in battlefields from the plains to the forests to the “holm-clif”4 you’d be on “feþe-last”5 to receive quite a reward. In fact, if you were “fela-modig”6 or even “cyne-beald”7 you could go to the “medu-wong”8 in triumph. For you’d know full well that you’d have a fantastic place in the “gold-sele”9 waiting for you.

1fold-weg: way, path, road, earth. fold (earth, ground, soil, terra firma; land, country, region; world) + weg (way, direction, path, road, highway,; journey, course of action)

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2fyrd-hwate: warlike, brave. fyrd (national levy or army, military expedition, campagin, camp) + hwæt ((as adjective) sharp, brisk, quick, active, bold, brave)

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3wæl-steng: spearshaft. wæl (slaughter, carnage) + steng (stake, pole, bar, rod, staff, cudgel) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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4holm-clif: sea-cliff, rocky shore. holm (wave, sea, ocean, water) + clif (cliff, rock, promontory, steep slope) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

5feþe-last: step, track, course. feðe (power of locomotion, walking, gait, pace) + last (sole of foot, spoor, footprint, track, trace)

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6fela-modig: very bold. fela (many, much, very much) + modig (spirited, daring, bold, brave, high-souled, magnanimous, impetuous, headstrong, arrogant, proud) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

7cyne-beald: royally bold, very brave. cyning (king, ruler, god, Christ, Satan) + beald (bold, brave, confident, strong, presumptious, impudent) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

8medu-wong: field (where the meadhall stood). medu (mead) + wang (plain, meadow, field, place, world) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

Back Up

9gold-sele: hall in which gold is distributed. gold (gold) + sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison)

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Closing

Next week, Grendel’s head enters Heorot.

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Grendel’s mother is gone, what warriors do (ll.1557-1569)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Grendel’s Mother Beaten, But Where did She even come From?
A Warrior’s Two Faces
Closing


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Synopsis

Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother.


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Translation

“He saw then in her armoury a sword blessed by victory,
a sword of giants’ craft from elder days, strong of edge,
ready for a warrior’s glory; that was the best of weapons,
but it was more than any other man
would have strength to bear into the dance of battle,
superb and splendid, the handiwork of giants.
He seized that belted hilt, the Scylding warrior,
he was fierce and fatally grim, when he drew that ring-patterned sword
she had no hope of further life, he angrily struck her,
so that the sword caught slickly at the base of her neck,
it shattered her vertabra; the sword passed through
her entire, doomed body; she crumpled to the floor,
the sword sweating blood, the man rejoicing in his work.”
(Beowulf ll.1557-1569)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Grendel’s Mother Beaten, But Where did She even come From?

And Beowulf has done it. He has killed Grendel’s mother. She wasn’t exactly “unseam’d from the nave to the chops” as the Sergeant says of Macbeth’s deed when talking with King Duncan in Macbeth (I.ii.22), but it still sounds like he split her with his enormous sword. How else could a threatened masculinity assert itself, right?

But what I wonder about while reading this passage is what sort of operation Grendel’s mother had in her underwater hall. I mean, Not only does she pull a dagger on Beowulf, but she has an entire armoury of some kind.

As more and more is built up around her, it’s sounding less and less like Grendel’s mother is some sort of animalistic monster and more like she’s the remnant of some sort of human culture. Or, at the least, she’s someone who was cast into exile and wound up living in a cave that had been lived in before.

So maybe Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary were onto something when they added an affair between Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother to the story of the 2007 Beowulf movie. But, instead of being a seductive water witch, Grendel’s mother was actually a member of Hrothgar’s hall.

Perhaps she was one who had given birth to a son with some sort of disability and, instead of just leaving him out on the rocks to die (if exposure was a thing the Norse did with babies who didn’t look “right”), she stole away into the night with him, found the cave, and became fierce and monstrous as she faced down all of the natural terrors that the community would otherwise have protected her and her child from.

Actually, looking at the timeline that the book gives us, Hrothgar ruled through 12 years of Grendel’s terror (ll.147-149). He also ruled for some time before that, enough time for Heorot to be built under his watch. whereas Grendel’s mother had ruled her depths for either 50 years or, as Seamus Heaney has it: “a hundred seasons,” which would work out to 25 years (ll.1498).

Now, it might be a bit of a stretch that Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother knocked boots if she’s been ruling for 50 years while he’s maybe been ruling for 20. But, if Grendel’s mother has only been ruling for 25, then, perhaps Grendel is Hrothgar’s son. So maybe she was an early mistress of the prince or even the young king Hrothgar and had to be kept quiet to allow for a more politically convenient marriage to come along.

Or, maybe there’s a bit of Anglo-Saxon history getting into the story here and Grendel’s mother was a Roman woman with a strange child that was cast out. After all, because they had better forging techniques, the Anglo-Saxons often considered Roman swords magical, mythically crafted weapons.

Unfortunately, though, all we can make of the Grendel’s mother’s background is based on assumptions.

But that’s also fortunate. As a poem Beowulf has a lot of gaps in its background information, and because of these gaps it can be talked about and used as a lens through which we can look at our own time almost endlessly.

So what do you think Grendel’s mother was doing with an armoury? Was she just a monster who happened upon an old previously inhabited cave? Or was she somebody exiled from Daneland who put everything around her together herself?


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A Warrior’s Two Faces

After the fact, a warrior who happens to bear a “eald-sweord”1 that he believes to be “sig-eadig”2 in the “beadu-lac”3 is likely to feel quite high and mighty. He’ll probably talk of the “weorð-mynd”4 he won while his grip was upon the “fetel-hilt”5.

But in the moment, through the “beadu-lac”3, that same warrior with the “hring-mæl”6 is a different person. He’s a “heoro-grim”7 swinging precisely and delivering death as limbs are severed and “ban-hring”8 are broken. His memory confers upon him “weorð-mynd”4 but his actions only make “flæsc-hama”9 after “flæsc-hama”9.


1eald-sweord: sword from elder days. eald (old, aged, ancient, antique, primeval, elder, experienced, tried, honoured, eminent, great) + sweord (sword)

2sig-eadig:blessed by victory. sig (victory) + eadig (wealthy, prosperous, fortunate, happy, blessed, perfect)

3beadu-lac: war-play, battle. beadu (war, battle, fighting, strife) + lac (play, sport, strife, battle, sacrifice, offering, gift, present, booty, message)

4weorð-mynd: honour, dignity, glory, mark of distinction. weorð (word, value, amount, price, purchase-money, ransom, worth, worthy, honoured, noble, honourable, of high rank, valued, dear, precious, fit, capable) + mynd (memory, remembrance, memorial, record, act of commemoration, thought, purpose, consciousness, mind, intellect)

5fetel-hilt: belted or ringed sword-hilt. fetel (belt) + hilt (handle, hilt of a sword)

6hring-mæl: sword with ring-like patterns. hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon; anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold, corslet, circuit (of a year), cycle, course, orb, globe) + mæl (mark, sign, ornament, cross, crucifix, armour, harness, sword, measure) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

7heoro-grim: savage, fierce. heoru (sword) + grim (fierce, savage, dire, severe, bitter, painful)

8ban-hring: vertebra, joint. ban (bone, tusk, the bone of a limb) + hring (ring, link of chain, fetter, festoon, anything circular, circle, circular group, border, horizon, rings of gold (as ornaments and as money), corslet, circuit of a year, cycle, course, orb, globe)

9flæsc-hama: body, carcase. flæsc (flesh, body (as opposed to soul), carnal nature, living creatures) + hama (covering, dress, garment, womb, puerperium, slough of a snake)


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Closing

Next week, Grendel comes back into the story.

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Beowulf’s armour questioned, words on weary warriors (ll.1541-1556)

Synopsis
Translation
Recordings
Is Beowulf’s Magic Armour really just God’s Influence?
Celebrating A Well-Armoured Warrior
Closing


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Synopsis

Grendel’s mother gets Beowulf down, but he bounces back.


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Translation

“She was quickly up and payed back that blow
with a fierce grip of her own, followed through with her forward grasp.
Stumbled then the wearied warrior, though the strongest,
a true foot-soldier, so that he fell to the floor.
She sat then on her hall-guest and she drew a dagger,
broad of blade, bright of edge; she was ready to avenge her son,
her only offspring. But on his breast lay
the firm mail-coat, that protected his life,
it prevented the dagger’s point and its edge from piercing.
The son of Ecgþeow would have perished
beneath the wide earth, that Geatish man,
if his war-corslet had not provided its help,
that tough mail-coat, and holy God
controlled the victory in that battle, the wise Lord,
Ruler of Heaven, he easily decided
the right outcome for the fight, once that man stood up.”
(Beowulf ll.1541-1556)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Is Beowulf’s Magic Armour really just God’s Influence?

Beowulf’s back, baby! Just as with the fight against Grendel, there’s explicit mention of god’s favour at the end of this passage. Though, Grendel’s mother almost had him.

Sitting astride her victim, she had a dagger at the ready, and raised. She would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling mail!

In fact, Bewoulf’s mail coat gets top billing, while god is just mentioned after the fact.

I think that the poet credits the armour and then god because the mail’s turning away the dagger is the incident, while god is said to be the cause.

Though, I can’t help but think that Beowulf’s armour is more than just something he straps on before a fight. I mean, he always heaps it with importance. In fact, he goes so far as to say that if he dies, the Danes need to send his armour back to Hygelac before the fight with Grendel (ll.452-453). As far as heirlooms go, that mail’s definitely really important to him. And he makes it clear that it’s the work of Weland the Smith (l.455), so there’s some magic to it.

And thinking of magic armour brings my mind around to RPGs.

As an avid fan of RPGs I find Beowulf interesting from a character building perspective. If you think of Beowulf as a caharacter in a game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) or in an RPG on a video game console or PC, then his attack stat is insanely high (that handgrip’s something to reckon with, right?), but his defense most be average or worse. So to compensate he’s got this magic mail.

Looking at Beowulf this way really makes me wonder if the poet or the audience for the poem had some sense of fighters being offensive or defensive but never both, and the magic mail is a device that makes Beowulf almost invulnerable since it balances his defense with his attack power.

Though, on one hand I feel like reading eowulf as a character from an RPG like this is reading things from my life into Beowulf rather than reading things actually in the poem out of it. On the other hand, though, complex games like D&D aren’t outside the ken of people from the medieval period. Surely somebody, somewhere in medieval Europe, invented a variation on chess, or had some sort of battle simulation game that had numbers at work behind the clashes of fighters.

Anyway, getting back to the mention of god that I made above, the poet doesn’t just refer to god once in this passage. He lays down three back to back. These three epithets over the course of just two lines suggest to me that something’s up there. However, I can only guess at what exactly is up here. Maybe the poet’s trying to throw attention off of Beowulf’s magical armour – surely a heathen idea! Or maybe he’s just playing up the Christian spin on wyrd to show that magic armour or not, it isn’t the gear that a player has equipped so much as it is the DM’s rolls that save people.

Chess has been around in Europe since about 800 AD, so the poet and audience of Beowulf likely knew about it, and maybe some of them played it. How complex do you think medieval board games were? Did thanes sit around playing dice and checkers while enjoying their mead and pork, or were some of them playing games as complex as D&D?


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Celebrating A Well-Armoured Warrior

The “werig-mod”1 “feþe-cempa”2 could make a fantastic “sele-gyst.”3 Especially after he has dirtied his “breost-net”4 on the battlefield (is that rust or blood…or both?) and achieved “wig-sigor”5. Though that “heaðu-byrne”6 may have just narrowly turned the sword “brun-ecg”7 away from his vitals in the fight. But at least that means that there aren’t any holes in him, or that wondrous “breost-net”4!


1werig-mod: weary, cast down. werig (weary, tired, exhausted, miserable, sad, unfortunate) + mod (heart,mind,spirit,mood,temper;arrogance, pride,power;power, violence)

2feþe-cempa: foot soldier. feþe (power of locomotion, walking, gait, pace) + cempa (warrior, champion) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

3sele-gyst: hall-guest. sele (hall, house, dwelling, prison) + gyst (guest, stranger) [A word exclusive to Beowulf]

4breost-net: coat of mail. breost (breast, bosom, stomach, womb, mind, thought, disposition) + net (netting, network, spider’s web)

5wig-sigor: victory in a battle. wig (strife, contest, war, battle, valour, military force, army) + sigor (victory, triumph)

6heaðu-byrne: war-corslet. heaðu (war) + byrne (corslet)

7brun-ecg: with gleaming blade. brun (brown, dark, dusky, having metallic lustre, shining) + ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle-axe)


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Closing

Next week, Beowulf’s luck turns around.

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Grendel’s mother inspires a new trope

A depiction of Grendel's mother from the graphic novel adaptation of the 2007 Beowulf movie.

Grendel’s mother in IDW’s graphic novel adaptation of the 2007 Beowulf movie. Image from: http://www.comicosity.com/buttkickn-moms-in-comics-beowulf-aliens-and-lois-lane/

On the translation side of this blog, I’m currently working through Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother. Out of the three monsters, she somehow seems the one most shrouded in darkness.

For starters, we never really get a good description of her. We’re only told on lines 1349-1351 that she has a woman’s likeness. Beowulf encounters her in the depths of a strange lake, and fights her in an underwater cave. And, although she’s a monster, some sort of creature like Grendel, she pulls out a dagger at one point in their fight and tries to stab Beowulf.

So she’s definitely mysterious, but entirely monstrous? That’s left quite unclear.

Especially if you focus in on her motivation for attacking Heorot and killing Æschere.

Grendel’s mother only kicks into action once she learns that her son has been killed. So she’s plainly motivated by revenge and the sort of anguished sorrow that only a parent who loses a child can really know.

This mysterious figure whose motivations are not only clear but also relatable has inspired comics fan and writer Michael Hale to identify a new trope.

Writing for Comicosity, Hale jumps from Grendel’s mother’s motivation to the presence of other female characters stepping up when their children are in danger. He calls this trope the “Ripley Twist,” based on Ripley’s fighting the alien at the end of Aliens to protect her ward Newt. You can read Michael’s full article here.

Finding the connection that Hale makes with Beowulf reminds me of how relevant the poem remains. As he points out in his first sentence, the poem isn’t too well known anymore. And, sometimes it seems like people groan and bemoan its existence in favour of things wittier and more polite (Victorian lit, I’m looking at you).

And why not?

In Victorian literature the gruesome brutality of human nature is tucked away in things like My Secret Life.

Beowulf, on the other hand, makes no excuses for the brutality of life. Its brutality is much more physical and visceral, but that makes its violence a potent analogy to the to the social, psychological, and emotional brutality that people experience today.

As brutal as it can be, Beowulf is something that allows us to look back at ourselves in a very different context. That people like Hale can bring ideas like the “Ripley Twist” out of it, then I’d say Beowulf‘s definitely worth reading. Who knows what you’ll find within its wordhoard?

What’s your favourite era of stories and why?